A topic that is currently attracting considerable attention in transport studies is the slowing down or even decline in the growth of car use across the Global North. The car evidently remains the the dominant mode of transport for everyday activities, but among young adults – and especially young men – holding a driver’s license, car ownership and the per capita distance by car have been decreasing since 1990 or thereabout. This trend has been attributed to a range of factors (see, for instance, Newman and Kenworthy 2012):
- a revival of public transport in urban areas
- a slowing down of the pace of urban sprawl
- (re)emerging cultures of urbanism, implying among others that more younger adults than before remain in the city rather than relocate to the suburbs
- population ageing
- the rise in fuel prices since 2000
- the economic crisis followng the 2007/07 credit crunch
- the waning influence of the car industry and lobby on public attitudes towards transport
- possibility that growing number of car users now spend so much time in their cars that they are unwilling to drive even more
It is beyond doubt that automobility — the practices, institutions and landscapes centred on the private car — is changing in countries like the UK, Germany, Japan and even the USA. But it is far too early to read the end of the car’s dominance into these developments. For one, a stabilising of the growth in car use and ownership is just that: it does not mean that as yet there are fewer people who are actually using or owning a car. And it remains to be seen what the future brings: it is not unlikely that the growth of car use and car ownership picks up again in the near future, for instance when the capitalist economies of the Global North enter a new growth cycle.
More significant, however, is that automobility has gone global over the past decades. At the global scale automobility continues to expand rapidly — think of the rapid growth in China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, Ghana, Nigeria, etc. We could therefore say that the global system of automobility is in great ‘health’, however undesirable that is from the point of view of environmental degradation, CO2 emissions and social justice. Peak car travel in the Global North is a significant development at the national level but it is also dwarfed at the global level by the developments in the Global South. A narrow focus on the developments in car use in the Global North is therefore a variant of western-centric thinking.
One might argue that the developments in the Global North are still significant as they are countries like Japan or Germany are the front runners and that the patters observed there will eventually be replicated in places that now experience rapid growth in car use. This argument, however, is developmentalist: it assumes that there is a more or less universal development trajectory that all countries will ultimately follow — a form of thinking that is not only Western-centric (as it positions Europe, the USA and Japan as leading by example) but also sidelines the role of spatial multiplicity (see Doreen Massey’s book For Space for further elaboration of this argument).
Peak car travel is a significant development but it must be placed in perspective: it is ultimately a local phenomenon that hardly dampens the global growth of car use. This means that transport’s contribution to global warming remains enormous and that there is no time for complacency: it remains absolutely critical that transport planners and professionals think more seriously and creatively about how step changes away from automobility can be realised. Conventional policies (investment in new public transport infrastructure, urban compaction, mobility management, road pricing) may have facilitated peak car travel in the Global North — though their effects should not be exaggerated as these policies’ public acceptability is partly a result of the same cultural, social and demographic changes that made peak car travel possible — but they appear quite inadequate at fundamentally reducing the growth of automobility across the Global South.